-- The champagne has barely dried in the visitors' clubhouse in Kansas City, and the Boston Red Sox already have signaled they're back to work on reconstructing a championship team gone to seed.
Thursday afternoon, the club announced they have re-signed Koji Uehara to a two-year, $18 million contract, clearly believing that their high-fivin' Japanese closer is more likely to resemble the late-in-life Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman model than the Joe Nathan model, the one that was supposed to deliver a championship to preseason favorite Detroit until the wheels came off.
The Sox were never going to make a $15-million-plus qualifying offer to Uehara, who turns 40 in the opening week of the 2015 season. But they eliminated any chance that Uehara would succumb to the temptations of free agency by signing him before he hit the open market. It took giving him an extra year to do so, but at a rate that by today's prices is eminently reasonable.
Rivera commanded $15 million a year at the age of 40, then re-upped for two years at $30 million, his $15 million per still the highest average annual value for a reliever. Jim Johnson of the Athletics and Brian Wilson of the Dodgers joined Nathan as $10 million-a-year relievers in 2014, while Nationals closer Rafael Soriano just finished a two-year, $28 million deal.
There are setup men, such as former Sox lefty Andrew Miller, who this winter could match or exceed Uehara's $9 million AAV. So the dollars are not the issue, especially with the Sox still at least $50 million under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold.
At stake instead is not Boston's bottom line but its judgment, in deciding that Uehara's truncated performance in 2014 was not a sign that the end times are at hand but a temporary glitch that a 40-year-old will leave in his rearview mirror.
"We identified some things that led to his brief period of struggles," Sox GM Ben Cherington said, "and he came back and threw well in his last three outings."
Uehara threw three innings over the course of the team's last 22 games, none in a closing situation, which would hardly seem to be enough to declare all was well. But evidently the Sox believed otherwise.
"From a health standpoint, he had a little lower-back issue at the end of the year but that was resolved and wasn't really a concern going forward," Cherington said, making the first mention by any Sox official that the pitcher's back had been bothering him.
"Once we were able to get through all that, we were able to look at the entire body of work. Obviously he's been an elite performer out of the bullpen for us for two seasons and a critical part of our bullpen. We're glad to have him back and it's an important first step in our offseason, we believe."
The success of Kansas City's shutdown bullpen this October only reinforced the importance of a team's relief corps to its overall success, which is what makes the loss of Miller sting so much more. Miller and Junichi Tazawa made for an elite setup combination, and while Cherington said he anticipates the club will approach Miller about returning, he's going to be one of the most highly sought players in free agency.
Craig Breslow, the other lefty so critical to the Sox in the run-up to their 2013 title, had an off-year in 2014, and the Sox are expected to pass on his $4 million option, making him a free agent. Cherington said Thursday he expects Breslow to have a bounce-back season, so the Sox may well try to re-sign him at a lesser rate, but there's a clear need for another lefty in the mix.
And what if Uehara should falter? The Sox have a decent safety net in Edward Mujica, the former Cardinals closer who pitched well after a brutal start. Tazawa has closing stuff if not makeup, and Rubby De La Rosa may profile eventually as a closer.
The Sox, of course, hope it never gets to that. Cherington noted Uehara's dedication to staying in "remarkable" shape and work ethic as reasons for his confidence that Uehara had plenty left to offer.
"You're really looking at a guy who has been one of the elite relievers in baseball for several years," Cherington said. "And again, based on our evaluation at the end of the year and what he did, we did not see any reason why that can't continue."
That's a question Uehara won't really be able to answer in April. Last season, he was terrific until mid-August, a time when contenders are banking on their closers still having two-plus great months to give. The jury will be out on Uehara until next August rolls around.